Opposition calls for A-LP investigation
Citizen's Progressive Alliance charges bureau with criminal activity

Water flows down the Animas River near Santa Rita Park on Monday, across from the future site of the A-LP pumping station. The Citizens’ Progressive Alliance has called for a formal investigation into project cost overruns and what it says are other malfeasances on the part of the Bureau of Reclamation, which is building A-LP. /Photo by Todd Newcomer

Charges of criminal activity are now being leveled at the Animas-La Plata project. A group opposing the ambitious water project has approached the Department of Interior and requested an internal affairs investigation of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for the design and construction of A-LP. Among the accusations are deliberate errors in anticipated costs, lack of environmental review and consistent suppression of the Freedom of Information Act.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the need for A-LP dates back to 1868 when an agreement was struck to compensate Indian tribes with water rights. In 1968, A-LP was first authorized for construction by the U.S. Congress as a way of fulfilling that century-old agreement to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. At that time, the A-LP project was proposed as a diversion of water from the Animas and La Plata rivers to a series of reservoirs in order to serve the tribes’ irrigation needs. However, courtesy of the Vietnam War, that project was never built.

Since that time, the project has seen numerous challenges and revisions. In 2000, a scaled-down version, coined “A-LP Lite,” was authorized by Congress. The changed project included a 120,000-acre-foot (more than 39-billion gallons) reservoir 2.5 miles southwest of downtown Durango in Ridges Basin. A pumping plant located near Smelter Rapid and Santa Rita Park would siphon up to 280 cubic feet per second from the Animas River and pump it uphill to feed the reservoir. Water stored in the reservoir would no longer be used for agriculture but would serve yet-to-be-determined municipal and industrial needs in New Mexico and Colorado.

Construction on this project got under way early last summer in Ridges Basin, and the reality of A-LP came to downtown Durango early this summer with work on the pumping plant across the river from Santa Rita Park. However, while many local residents have begun to view the project as a done deal, many are continuing to fight A-LP. One group, the Citizens’ Progressive Alliance, is pursuing six separate lawsuits against the Department of the Interior and the Animas-La Plata project. The most significant of the CPA’s legal actions had a day in court Aug. 20 and alleges that the Bureau of Reclamation has failed to do necessary upkeep on the A-LP water rights, also known as diligence, and as a consequence, has lost them.

In addition to legal challenges, the CPA took its opposition in a new direction last week. In a letter dated Aug. 29, 2003, CPA Chair Phil Doe asked Ronald Gonzales, a special agent with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General, to begin an independent inquiry into A-LP.

Steve Cone, the CPA’s A-LP project coordinator and board member, explained, “My understanding is that Phil (Doe) has been in touch with Ronald Gonzales, and we are hopeful he will raise issues before the inspector general that we feel are of great concern and worthy of some serious scrutiny on his part.”

The first concern raised in the letter deals with cost overruns associated with A-LP. In a July 31 letter to its partners, the Bureau of Reclamation explained that the original cost estimates of $337.9 million were dramatically low. New estimates had risen to $500 million, a jump of nearly $163 million, or 50 percent.

The CPA charged that this radical underestimation was a deliberate attempt to squeeze the controversial A-LP project into existence. Cone remarked: “Our view is that the initial cost estimates were purposely and monstrously low-balled simply to rally public opinion and get the shovels in the ground. The Bureau of Reclamation never came clean and has still not come clean on the real costs of this project.”

Cone also cited previous settlement costs to the tune of $165 million that were involved with the first incarnation of the project. He said this sum has not been factored into current estimates and is effectively being hidden from taxpayers.

Another of the CPA’s grievances is the failure by the Bureau of Reclamation to conduct environmental mitigation. Specifically, the group charges that a wetlands mitigation plan has never been completed, largely because there is no La Plata River water available to create wetlands.

“There exists at this point no environmental commitment plan for the project that requires that the bureau mitigates for impacts,” Cone said. “If they have a plan, they haven’t released it to the public.”

Doe’s letter also charges that the Department of Interior has repeatedly refused to respond to the CPA’s Freedom of Information Act requests and consistently placed them on the back burner.

Construction of the pumping plant has proceeded according to schedule according to Pat Schumacher, ALP projects manager. In late July, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it had underestimated the total project’s cost by 50 percent. /Photo by Todd Newcomer

“Just the other day, I had a call from the Department of Interior about a request made in December of 2000 that has still not been processed,” Cone said. “We’ve seen a huge reluctance to process public requests that would reveal the bureau’s rationale.”

Cone said that the overall intent of the call for an inquiry is to uncover the hidden realities of the A-LP project so the public can make informed decisions. “We look at the Inspector General’s Office as a means of bring this out so that people can take a closer look at the project’s problems,” Cone said. “Whether a department with the charge of policing the Bureau of Reclamation will actually do that remains to be seen.”

Pat Schumacher, the Bureau of Reclamation’s projects manager for A-LP, countered that his agency has always been above board about the project and has nothing to hide. To this end, he referenced the revelation of the project’s radically underestimated costs. Instead of trying to hide these shortfalls, Schumacher said the Bureau of Reclamation went out of its way to make them public.

“I think just the opposite,” he said. “As soon as we knew about it, we put the whole thing out to our sponsors and the public.”

He added that the net effect of the shortfalls will likely be an extension of timeline beyond the targeted completion date of spring 2008. “We budget and request funds from Congress every year,” Schumacher said. “What this will do is extend the need to seek funding further down the road.”

As for work to date, Schumacher said that crews have taken the money that’s been awarded to the project and put it to good use. “For the money we’ve gotten to date, we’ve done really well,” he said.

However, the CPA contends that the money A-LP has gotten to date has been effectively stolen from taxpayers. In sum, the CPA charges that since 1968, A-LP has created a “recipe for abuse” that may constitute criminal behavior. Noting a direct implication in Doe’s letter of “criminal action,” Cone said, “I think the language couches any direct accusations of criminal action. I think any careful inquiry into the action of Bureau of Reclamation personnel would be a real eye opener for the public and lead to further investigations.”

Now that the letter has been delivered to Gonzales’ office, Cone said the ball is in the inspector general’s court. Whether an official inquiry into the internal goings on of the Animas-La Plata project will take place should be known in the near future.






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